Walking Through Bricks 12/02/2010Posted by brendan in Avions, Trains et Voitures.
Tags: england, history, london, south bank, southwark, st. paul's cathedral, travel, wandering
Streets grew tight, twisting and winding through tall brick buildings. The sun disappeared in these narrow corridors where people reclaimed walkways from cars. Development is clearly working to ruin the glory of what once was, but in the grit and grime remain signs of life amidst the over-priced restaurants, loft conversions and boutiques.
Southwark was once its own city, like much of what has been absorbed by the teeming metropolis of London. It has a distinct character crying out, echoes of the past when it was a tax-free haven for shady operators, prostitutes and theater. Perhaps the spirit survives from the time of Londonium, the Roman outpost that formed the beginnings of the city. Wild times, when the area was a chain of marshy islands that provided support for the original Thames bridge.
The church couldn’t control it, had no power to clear the denizens from its grounds. It took the commercial guilds and political connections to bring the district under London. It never recovered. The gentry would cross the river to play in the brothels and taverns, the prisons were built to house the population, merchants developed the riverfront and housed their wealth behind thick stone walls. Fires came and went, ravaging the tightly packed, ramshackle homes.
When the riverfront trade dried up abandoned warehouses were victimized by modern money. Subdivisions grew from the mortar, design firms occupying the courtyards, and people stroll along the promenade. Towers of steel and glass square off with their northern brethren. Further west, in what they call South Bank for the benefit of tourists, some positive signs exist. The massive Tate Modern, the reconstructed Globe Theater. And some horrible things, of course, the London Eye and the South Bank Center.
I ignored everything the best I could, choosing to lurk through tunnels and down the narrowest streets I could find. Skyways swung overhead, the lighting was dim and yellow. Wet echoes bounced off brick walls. You could find a moment’s solitude and pretend it was a hundred years ago, two hundred. When this neighborhood was thick with rotting teeth, opium dens, corrupt cops, butchers and bakers, shoeless children kicking cans. It still feels subterranean.
Past the affront that is the HSS Belfast, fun for the whole family, and across the Millennium Bridge towards the heart of The City. St. Paul’s Cathedral is there, no longer towering but just as powerful as if the financial center hadn’t grown around it. Parishioners were kept safe from the roving bands of Italians and South Asians, snapping pictures with their cell phones, by security. I snuck inside to find mass in session. The ushers seemed confused, trying to shush gawkers who had managed to bypass shivering docents outside. I watched the congregation from afar, dwarfed by the massive building surrounding them. Someone was quietly scolded for pulling out a camera, the deacon was preaching, I snuck back outside.
Like so much of London places are destroyed and rebuilt, but always remain what they were. The first St. Paul’s Cathedral was a wooden structure from the 7th Century, lost to fire once and then razed by Vikings. It came back as a stone structure, then was lost to flames again. The ruling family rebuilt and expanded the site, a process which took two centuries to complete. After the English Civil War the church was used to stable horses and acted as a merchants’ exchange, until the crown reclaimed the city and began to rehabilitate the cathedral. The Great Fire intervened. Damage was so great the church was torn down and rebuilt from scratch under the design of Christopher Wren. It took several plans and several rejections before work began again, and eventually the church was resurrected from hundreds of years of fire, death and change. Still, it is St. Paul’s– always has been and will always be.
Night had fallen and the temperature dropped. I stopped for a coffee near the St. Paul’s tube stop. You look tired, do you want a double? Not exactly the charm he had turned on for the annoying blonde girl who was ahead of me. I sat with my double espresso in the corner looking at a guidebook. Do they have cheap Chinese food in Chinatown? Do they have curry shops in Soho? Are there any pubs where I could get fish and chips for five quid, maybe a pint? The night was just beginning.